As midnight neared, 2,000 antiwar activists surged up Carr’s Hill to the steps of the University president’s darkened mansion. The radical lawyer William Kunstler spurred them forward, shouting, fist in the air. Thirty students locked arms to block the entry. Between the agitated crowd and the defiant cordon, a lone activist tried to reason with the mob of his fellow students, using a megaphone through the din. Beyond the locked door, President Edgar Shannon spoke urgently with student leaders who had run ahead to warn him. From upstairs, where she waited with their five young daughters, Eleanor Shannon called, “Edgar, they’re coming!”
For one intense moment, the antiwar fervor of the 1960s converged on Carr’s Hill at the University of Virginia. It was Wednesday, May 6, 1970, and a movement to shut down the University was about to boil over. During that tumultuous week remembered as May Days, many classes were canceled, antiwar rallies swelled to the thousands, protesters occupied the Navy ROTC building, student marshals stood sentry against arson around the Academical Village, and billy club–wielding police stormed the Lawn and some fraternity houses, hauling dozens of fleeing students to jail. Through it all, Edgar Shannon walked a high wire: angering the governor, his board and many alumni by siding with the students against the war, but never bending in his determination to keep the University open.
“It was a tense confrontation,” recalls Jim Roebuck (Grad ’69, ’77), who was Student Council president and one of the leaders who had hurried to Carr’s Hill to alert Shannon. “You didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Student activism had been building at the University, slowly, for years. It began alongside African Americans in the fight for civil rights in Charlottesville, in Virginia’s rural Southside, and in the Deep South with Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. Later, activists and traditionalist students rebelled against rules that restricted their social lives, and made common cause to displace generations of fraternity control of student politics. But nothing catalyzed the student movement like the war in Vietnam. At UVA and hundreds of other college campuses around the country, massive student protests erupted in response to President Richard Nixon’s announcement on April 30, 1970, that U.S. troops were moving into Cambodia, widening the war he had promised to end.
This is the story of the gathering 1960s antiwar movement at the University, as recalled by some who were there, and its climax in the May Days crisis.
In 1966, the Vietnam War was escalating, with the draft taking almost 400,000 young American men that year. But antiwar sentiment was scant at UVA. That February, in the first demonstration against the war at the University, 23 students stood vigil on the steps of Alderman Library. According to the Cavalier Daily, they were jeered and pelted with snowballs.
Tom Gardner (Col ’71), who was national chairman of a Southern version of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, had been conducting “teach-ins” about the war since the previous spring. He says the inspiration to actively protest that February came directly from his and other students’ involvement in the civil rights movement. “That generation at UVA saw the legitimacy of the blacks’ complaints,” he says. “That gave us the impression that organizing and protesting could make a difference.”
Jeff Kirsch (Col ’71), who was instrumental in bringing Kunstler to Grounds and was that lone activist with the megaphone at Carr’s Hill, sees a broader sweep to the growing activism in the late 1960s. “It was like a cultural train running through the University,” he says. “There was this awakening and outpouring of emotions and progressive instincts.”
Antiwar activism grew on Grounds. In 1967, two busloads of UVA students traveled to Washington, D.C., for a march on the Pentagon coordinated by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. “The Mobe,” as it was known, connected antiwar activists on campuses around the country with one another—a network that grew in influence.
In 1968, national events disturbed and disrupted norms throughout American society. That January, the temporary success of the massive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive showed that the U.S. war effort was not invincible, despite more than half a million American troops deployed. In April, an assassin murdered Dr. King. In June, another killed antiwar presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. TV viewers were shocked in August to see Chicago police brutalize protesters at the Democratic National Convention. That violence would play into May Days two years later, as the threatening march on Carr’s Hill was directly instigated by speeches by one of the Chicago protest leaders, Jerry Rubin, and by Kunstler, who defended Rubin and the other radical organizers in a courtroom circus famous as the trial of the Chicago Seven.
That September, Robert Rosen (Col ’69) wrote a full-page “Prospectus for the University” for the Cavalier Daily, calling 1968 “a year of riot, rebellion, near insurrection” and predicting a rising tide of dissent on Grounds. Rosen argued that students and faculty, not political appointees and absentee donors, should control the University. He claimed ground for a liberal, not radical, movement whose foremost cause would be rectifying the University’s de facto segregation. He also called for student control of activity fees and an end to the rules imposed on student behavior under the prevailing concept that college administrators operated “in loco parentis.”
The more militant activist students had meanwhile unified as the Radical Student Union, and they heated up the issue of segregation reform early in 1969. Protesting on the Lawn outside the Board of Visitors meeting on Feb. 15, about 150 students called for the board to be remade to reflect the makeup of Virginia by race, gender and income level. Pointedly, they demanded the ouster of board member C. Stuart Wheatley (Law ’30), who as a state legislator had supported the state’s racist policy of Massive Resistance to school integration. In his Virginia Commonwealth University master’s thesis on the growth of the New Left at UVA, Thomas M. Hanna (Col ’34) notes that some moderates reacted immediately to support the radicals’ demands but not their style. A consensus was forming.
The next day, a meeting in Rosen’s room on the Lawn produced the Student Coalition, which encompassed establishment liberals, antiwar radicals and fraternity leaders. In his recent UVA memoir, From Rebel Yell to Revolution, Joel Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74) cites this meeting as a turning point. “The key,” writes Gardner, who is not related to the activist Tom Gardner, “was to forcefully demonstrate that the forthcoming actions of the coalition did not represent the ideas of wide-eyed radicals and agitators, and that support for stronger actions to address the racial issues at the University was widespread.”
In the next two days, hundreds of students responded to the coalition’s call to rally at the Rotunda, in what became known as the “Coat and Tie Rebellion” because its dress code matched the traditional Old U standard. Rosen, who now practices law in his native Charleston, South Carolina, says, “I was the good liberal. We’re going to wear coats and ties. The whole idea of the coalition was to get the majority of students on our side.” Half-joking, he recalls the purpose as, “Let’s get all the real people, not just the scrungy communists.”
Rosen was thinking in particular about Tom Gardner, who had just returned to the University, having left in 1967 to work across the South for civil rights and against the draft and the Vietnam War. In his book Struggle for a Better South, historian Gregg Michel (Grad ’89, ’99) describes how Gardner and his Southern Student Organizing Committee partners were roughed up and banned from campuses—but also spread their message, by means including an interview on Larry King’s radio show. In a sign of the UVA-led organization’s standing in the antiwar movement, Gardner had been a member of a delegation that met in communist Czechoslovakia with representatives of the Viet Cong, the enemy American troops were fighting.
Back on Grounds in 1969, Gardner saw value in joining forces with Rosen, appearances aside. “A coalition is a coalition,” he says. “Some of them saw themselves as the established student leaders and thought that the president of the University would talk to them, but not to us.”
The Student Coalition presented 11 demands to President Shannon, including those of the Radical Student Union, but also calling for an increase in black enrollment, an African-American assistant dean of admissions, a Black Studies program and allowing University workers to unionize. After caravanning to Richmond, a delegation met with Gov. Mills Godwin—himself a 1940 Law alum—who was dismissive. Rosen gave a speech on the Capitol steps, warning that the University was not immune to the disruptions roiling other colleges.
Capitalizing on the broad-based appeal of the Coat and Tie Rebellion, the more radical activists formed the Virginia Progressive Party for the next Student Council election. “We realized that we could take over student government through democratic elections,” Tom Gardner says. He took a seat that fall on a radicalized Student Council that would give the legitimacy of elected student government to an expanded list of demands during the May Days crisis the following spring.
Though “Old U” and “New U” typically meant traditionalists versus activists, conservatives were also active in the ’60s cauldron of student politics. Economics graduate student John Kwapisz (Grad ’69) had started a Young Americans for Freedom chapter as an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross and saw a need at the University. “Most of the coat-and-tie conservatives were active in the College Republicans,” he says, “but YAF was a little more hard-core, a little more activist.”
The YAF made itself felt in the fall of 1969. At colleges around the country, “the Mobe” network, including UVA’s Radical Student Union, promoted a National Vietnam Moratorium on Oct. 15—a one-day pause from classes and work to join demonstrations against the war. By then, more than 300 faculty members had signed a petition against the war, notes Hanna, and they and the Student Council pressed Shannon to declare the moratorium. The YAF threatened to sue. People were free to observe the moratorium, Kwapisz argued, but the University had an obligation to remain open for those who did not.
Shannon did not officially close the University, but many classes were canceled, and many students and faculty participated in demonstrations and debates—including one in which Kwapisz faced Tom Gardner. “We stopped it that time,” Kwapisz recalls. But a rally against the war at the Rotunda drew more than 1,000 people, and the disruption foreshadowed the upheaval to come.
At about that time, to raise money for the Virginia Progressive Party, Jeff Kirsch booked Kunstler, the radical attorney, to speak at UVA months later, on May 6, 1970. He had no idea what was coming. “I booked a classroom,” he says.
As the dogwoods bloomed on Grounds in spring 1970, American troop levels in Vietnam were dropping, falling below 400,000 from the peak of 536,000 two years earlier. Casualties were down from the high of 16,592 killed in 1968. The draft was declining but would still take more than 160,000 young men that year. So when President Nixon announced on April 30 that U.S. troops were entering Cambodia, widening the war to root out Viet Cong sanctuaries and supply lines, a wave of protests engulfed campuses across the country. At UVA, activists and moderates met on Sunday, May 3, and agreed on a walkout on Tuesday and a strike on Wednesday.
The May Days crisis had begun.
The next day, Monday, May 4, the stakes exploded with a volley of rifle fire in Ohio. At Kent State University, National Guard troops, sent to quell violence after the ROTC building had been burned the night before, opened fire on demonstrators and killed four students. Nationwide, protests and rage spiked as the news spread.
“What happened at Kent State was incomprehensible,” Roebuck says. “It lit a fire at UVA.”
At the University, a rally at the Rotunda that night drew more than 1,500 people, hundreds of whom marched to Carr’s Hill to demand that Shannon sign their telegram of protest to Nixon. He spoke to them from the steps of his home but said only that he shared their concern. Marchers then turned to Maury Hall, UVA’s Naval ROTC building. As some negotiated with moderate student leaders at the door, promising nonviolence, others broke into the building from the back. Hundreds of protesters poured inside, refusing to leave. Strike leaders began to compose a list of demands, such as banishing ROTC from the University.
Because of lessons it learned from a building takeover at Duke University the previous year, UVA’s administration had already drafted a court order forbidding obstruction or disturbance of any University property. A Charlottesville judge signed it that night, and police arrived at Maury Hall near dawn with authority to oust the protesters if they disobeyed the court. “We had a choice to make,” says Tom Gardner, who now teaches at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. “I was a little older and I was an established radical, so I had some cred. I said I didn’t think head-bloodying was going to accomplish anything. There was a lot of bravado, but you could feel relief in the room. I think we marched out victoriously.”
They’d be back.
Later that day, Tuesday, 900 students packed Old Cabell Hall for a memorial service for the slain Kent State students, led by Shannon and Roebuck, the Student Council president. As students arrived and departed, activists passed out black armbands, antiwar literature and a mimeographed “strike newspaper” called The Sally Hemings, urging students to abandon formal classes and join “teach-ins” on free speech, women’s liberation, organizing for peace and other issues. From strike headquarters at 50 East Lawn, they also promoted the next day’s speech by Kunstler and Rubin—not in a classroom now, but in the basketball arena, University Hall.
A Strike Committee of activists, overlapping with the Student Council, planned further demonstrations, called for a general shutdown of classes, and further developed the list of demands begun in Maury Hall the night before. These included revoking the Maury Hall court order, disarming UVA police, and keeping non-University police off Grounds, plus what had become standard on striking campuses across the country: ending all defense-related research at the University and breaking ties with the ROTC. But they also linked back to the Radical Student Union and Coat and Tie Rebellion demands of the previous fall, calling for a goal of 20 percent black enrollment, plus admission of women on equal terms with men. The list was put to a Student Council vote to legitimize the demands.
“The vote was 10-10, and I broke the tie,” Roebuck says. In coat and tie, he stood with Shannon on the steps of Alderman Library and read the list aloud, along with the demand that Shannon join other college presidents in signing a telegram denouncing the expansion of the war into Cambodia. Again, Shannon demurred, sympathetically.
Wednesday was declared Freedom Day. Official class attendance dwindled, though the outdoor teach-ins remained. Picketing and peace vigils continued, and another rally at the Rotunda drew a crowd of more than 3,000, according to Hanna. Not all was politics and protest. Frisbees flew. Rock and folk music, live and recorded, was essential entertainment. Like revolution, the aroma of marijuana was in the balmy spring air.
The tension mounted in anticipation of the speech that night by Kunstler, who would be joined by Jerry Rubin, then part of an anarchist revolutionary group called the Yippies. At a time when the total undergraduate and graduate enrollment at the University was just under 10,000, more than 9,000 people filled U-Hall. Many came from other schools and communities. While the crowd waited for the speakers, one contemporary account says, they were amused by live rock bands, “a spectacular indoor Frisbee match,” and a giant, inflated banana being batted like a beach ball around the room. But things turned serious when Kunstler and Rubin took the microphone. Joel Gardner describes the crowd as wearing denim and work shirts, some waving Viet Cong flags—a vivid contrast to the coat-and-tie order he had seen there at the Honor convocation the year he arrived.
“With the flags waving, the crowd being whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic speaker, and the throngs making chopping motions with their arms, while screaming ‘strike, strike’ (rather than ‘heil, heil’), I began to feel chills going up and down my spine,” he writes. Bob Cullen (Col ’70), then the Cavalier Daily editor, says, “I remember looking at that and being dismayed, because it reminded me of old films of Nazi rallies—not the ideology, necessarily, but the frenzy.”
Clenched fist held high, Kunstler called for shutting down the University to stop the war. “We’ve got to liberate the places in which we have the power—the campuses,” he said, according to May Days: Crisis in Confrontation, a pictorial collection published later that year. Virginius Dabney’s Mr. Jefferson’s University highlights these words from Kunstler: “These fists have to be clenched, and they have to be in the air. When they’re opened, we hope it’s in friendship, not around the trigger guard of a rifle. But if we’re not listened to, or if the issue is forced, they may well open around trigger guards.” Rubin followed with a rambling revolutionary tirade.
“Those two were marvels at whipping up a crowd, and Rubin especially so,” says Tom Breslin (Grad ’69, ’72), a Jesuit graduate student who was a member of the Student Council and editor of the alternative, antiwar Virginia Weekly. “He aimed to create violent mischief.”
Kirsch, who was emcee of the event as president of the sponsoring Virginia Progressive Party, remembers what alarmed him. “Kunstler and Rubin started talking about how we should ‘liberate’ the president’s house,” he says. As a responsive crowd formed to march on Carr’s Hill, Kirsch hurried to get there first, knocked on the door and told Shannon what was coming.
Breslin also raced to Carr’s Hill with Roebuck. They and two others met with Shannon inside the house. “I tried to give him some options to quell the mob,” Breslin says, such as renouncing his Navy Reserve commission to show his disgust with the war. “You could hear them coming. Eleanor and the children were upstairs, and she called down in obvious distress.”
Joel Gardner and President of the College Whitt Clement (Col ’70, Law ’74) were separately recruited to get ahead of the crowd. Gardner joined a group of students at the top of the steps at the entrance to the mansion, linking arms to form a defensive wall. As the crowd came up the hill, he says, he heard people yelling, “Burn it down!”
“We were literally eyeball to eyeball with a frenzied mob,” Gardner writes in his memoir. “I truly believe we were only moments away from violent confrontation. There were many outside agitators and radicals in that crowd, and no one knows how badly this might have ended.”
The May Days photo book put out that year captures the scene: “Two thousand strong, the marchers reached Shannon’s darkened house at 10:55, and their ranks pressed close, covering the front lawn. While some were content to pass joints in circles right at the front steps, others shouted angry threats and Yippie cries, filling the air with an electricity which told that this was as tense as things had been so far. Strike marshals and a group of self-appointed guards flashed peace signs, discouraging the efforts of some to have the crowd batter down the locked door.”
Tom Gardner recalls Kunstler on the mansion’s steps, facing the crowd, still provoking them. The radical lawyer equated President Shannon’s refusing their demands with Marie Antoinette’s saying of starving French peasants, “Let them eat cake.” Kunstler boomed: “We all know what happened to Marie Antoinette!”
Inside the house, Roebuck says, “Mrs. Shannon was sort of hysterical.” Breslin says that for every shout of “Burn it down!” though, he heard 20 shouts of “No! No!”
Out front, Kirsch faced the mob he had unintentionally helped to create. “People were inflamed,” he says. “I felt like it was my fault. It was my event.” A megaphone amplifying his words, Kirsch addressed the crowd. “I said, ‘This is not the right tactic. We should be going after a target that is more associated with the war effort—we should take the Navy ROTC building.’ I didn’t want to burn down Maury Hall—I was trying to protect Shannon and his family.”
“That was a brilliant decision on his part,” says Breslin, who had left the house with Roebuck and circled around to the front, where he joined in the cry to move again on Maury Hall. Near the steps, Tom Gardner favored diverting the crowd, too, before violent words became violent acts. He added his voice: “To Maury Hall!” From his position at one side, Clement says, it wasn’t possible to tell who was saying, “Burn it down” and who was saying, as he was, “The ROTC building, the ROTC building.”
And to the ROTC building they went, occupying it again and declaring it “Freedom Hall.” A photo from that night shows a scorched mattress that had been dragged from the building’s basement, possibly a remnant of an attempt to follow through on the cries of “Burn it down.” The smoke, however, eventually forced the protesters to abandon the building.
The threat of arson may have been uncertain, but the fear was real. As at Kent State, buildings had been burned or trashed at some of the hundreds of campuses where students were by then protesting. After the confrontation at Carr’s Hill, volunteer marshals took up watchful posts all over Grounds. In his novel A Southern Girl, John Warley (Law ’70) includes a scene taken from that night, when he was stationed at one end of Old Cabell Hall.
Organized earlier in the week by the administration, especially among law students, the volunteer student marshals were peacekeepers as well as sentries. From a command post in the Law School dean’s office, Ted Hogshire (Col ’65, Law ’70) acted as dispatcher, sending marshals to brewing trouble spots via a network of walkie-talkies provided by Paul Saunier, an aide to Shannon. “It was like an apocalyptic week,” says Hogshire, now a retired judge in Charlottesville. “We were up all night, night after night.”
Some of the alarms were just rumors. But others were real. Hogshire was on the walkie-talkie network during the Carr’s Hill standoff, having mobilized the marshals who blocked the door when it became clear that Kunstler and Rubin’s call to “liberate” the president’s house was going to be trouble.
The next day, Thursday, demonstrations continued, including a mass meeting of 1,000 students on the Lawn. The YAF pressed its demand for a student referendum on the proposed strike and on the demands listed by the Strike Committee and Student Council. A vote was set for Monday. That night, protesters assembled at the intersection of Rugby Road and University Avenue for a “honk-in”—urging drivers to honk their horns in support of the strike and against the war. As the crowd grew, it flowed toward Emmet Street and Route 250, increasingly disrupting traffic, until state police with billy clubs herded the crowd back toward Grounds. But it was only a mild rehearsal for the following night.
When Friday’s “honk-for-peace” demonstration again flowed toward Emmet and Route 250, more than 200 helmet-clad state police officers were waiting. And they didn’t wait long. Declaring the assembly a violation of the Virginia Riot Control Act—passed in 1968 as an anti-protest measure—the police told University administrators to tell the demonstrators to disperse. When that failed, the police charged.
“That was an amazing event,” Clement recalls. “I was at a black-tie function at the Rotunda and went outside. Students were taunting the state police, who were lined up on the white lines on University Avenue with billy sticks. All of a sudden, the police charged, jumping over a stone wall. Everybody got the hell out of there.”
As the police pursued demonstrators up Rugby Road and even onto the Lawn, Clement’s room on the West Lawn quickly became a shelter—for people he didn’t know. He recalls seeing police pulling people out of rooms by their legs. They made 68 arrests, almost indiscriminately hauling protesters, student marshals, bystanders, a man delivering pizza, even tuxedo-clad fraternity members and their dates, into a pre-positioned Mayflower moving van. As far as Tom Gardner and other activists were concerned, as Saturday arrived, Grounds were now occupied by the police.
The overreaction angered and radicalized students, giving new life to an unfocused strike movement that had lost momentum. “You couldn’t have written a better script,” Tom Gardner says. “On the fraternity house balconies, there were now sheets saying, ‘Vote Yes on Strike.’ ”
On Sunday, Shannon addressed a crowd estimated at more than 4,000 on the Lawn. The day was sunny and so warm that many in the crowd were shirtless. At first he drew boos. Joel Gardner recalls that Shannon called the Carr’s Hill marchers and the Maury Hall occupiers “mobs.” And Shannon noted with some pride that the University had remained open for students and faculty who did not strike, while many schools around the country shut down. A shout of “Bulls---” sounded from the back. But he won the crowd over when he declared his opposition to the war. “I know your anguish over the military involvement in Southeast Asia,” Shannon said. “I want promptly to end the war. I feel furthermore it is urgent that the national administration demonstrate renewed determination to end the war and unprecedented alienation of American youth caused by that conflict.”
He shared the text of a letter he was sending to Virginia’s two U.S. senators, in which he expressed grave concern over anti-intellectualism and growing militarism, criticized the Nixon administration’s response to the Kent State killings, and decried government leaders’ attacks on universities, students and the free press. He invited students and faculty to sign the letter and made copies available at Pavilion VIII. By the next day, Monday, May 11, the letter had nearly 5,000 signatures, and Roebuck led a delegation of 100 students to Washington, D.C., to present it to Sens. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and William Spong. Byrd especially, he says, was cold to the criticism of Nixon and the war.
Also on Monday, those who voted in the referendum approved the strike by a 2-1 ratio, and supported most of the demands for change—but not the demands to oust the ROTC programs and halt all defense research. On the Lawn that night, 2,000 students rallied, but the event was calm. A student rock band played from the base of the Rotunda steps.
As the narrative in the May Days photo book put it: “The mass of people sat transfixed, content to gaze the stars.” With the strike vote won and with Shannon publicly calling for ending the war, the angry energy of the strike was dissipating.
In the days that followed, Shannon’s speech and the letter were criticized as weak and appeasing by Gov. Linwood Holton, Sen. Byrd, editorial writers, alumni and the rector of the Board of Visitors. To calls for Shannon’s resignation, though, students and faculty rallied behind him with calls, petitions and letters to the editor. Looking back years later, Shannon defended his approach: “We were all together. It tended to pull the University together, instead of having factions.”
Roebuck, now a state legislator in Pennsylvania, agrees. “Shannon channeled the anger and frustration into a positive resolution, rather than escalation,” he says.
On May 13, one week after the dramatic confrontation at Carr’s Hill, Shannon took public account of May Days. No injuries on Grounds. No serious property damage. In every school, he said, classes had essentially returned to normal. “The University is still open,” he said. “I am determined to keep it open.”
The May Days furor largely subsided, though teach-ins and liberation classes continued outdoors, UVA students attended a statewide protest in Richmond on May 15, and strike leaders from various Virginia schools met at the University on May 17 and 18. Hanna calls that meeting the last significant event of the strike, noting, “by the end of the semester life was returning to normal.”
Meanwhile, students sorted out the options presented by the faculty and administration for completing courses interrupted by the strike. Subject to their professor’s agreement, students could take their grade as of May 1, substitute work for time missed during the strike, or defer their exam until the next semester. Joel Gardner, who duly completed his course work and graduated that spring, writes that the last weeks took on a party atmosphere: “For all intents and purposes, the semester was over after President Shannon’s speech and the approval by most faculty of a flexible or no-exam policy.”
The disruption was minimal: 1,974 students graduated on schedule.
At Final Exercises, thousands of appreciative parents, students and faculty surged to their feet when Shannon rose to speak.
He accepted a hero’s ovation.